April 8, 2011

Indianapolis, Summer 2009 (Part II)

As long-time readers of this column well know, the Hoosier State has effectively become our second home, what with our several visits a year to see the in-laws in Fort Wayne. Those visits tend to give your editor ample jumping-off time to explore far beyond northeast Indiana - and often, they include the two-hour drive down I-69 to see the sites (and sights) of Indianapolis.

Our summer 2009 visit to Indianapolis brought us into two of the city's newest studio facilities, one part of a big cluster of downtown studios, the other out in the suburbs and about to enter yet another phase of its history.

Let's start near downtown, where North Meridian Street boasts one of the tightest concentrations of broadcast facilities since the days when all three of Salt Lake City's TV stations shared a single block of Social Hall Avenue.

Even today, the ten blocks of North Meridian between 10th and 20th streets boast the studios of the Indianapolis market's NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates, as well as its public TV and radio station - but until a few years ago, these blocks also boasted the city's Fox station. And the history goes even deeper: several of the broadcast facilities along this stretch of Meridian have housed multiple stations through the years. Until it moved out to the northwest side of town, the Fox station, WXIN (Channel 59), occupied a building at 1440 N. Meridian that had been the home of WISH radio and TV. (WISH-TV moved to its current home at 1950 N. Meridian in the seventies.)

And the former home of WFYI public TV and radio at 1401 N. Meridian? That building, seen here out the car window - it's tough to park on Meridian! - was the old home of WLW-I, channel 13, where some kid named Letterman worked as a weatherman when he wasn't in class at Ball State. Indy's third TV station was an ABC affiliate when it was here, but eventually became the NBC station, changed calls to WTHR, and moved a few blocks south to 1000 N. Meridian, where it remains today. ABC, meanwhile, replaced NBC on channel 6, the erstwhile WFBM-TV. The old WFBM TV and radio center at 1330 N. Meridian is still home to channel 6, now WRTV, and we hope to tour it, too, on a visit someday.

But we're here this August morning to see WFYI at its new home at 1630 N. Meridian, where the staff was just settling in after the lengthy transition up the street from the old studios, conducted in stages throughout most of 2008. The new building is actually a hybrid of a very old facade - this had been the headquarters of the Indiana Gas Company since 1945 - combined with a newer four-story office building behind the older facade and a 5,500-square foot addition purpose-built in 2007-08 by WFYI on the north side of the building to house TV studios.

Our tour begins on the first floor, where there's a big atrium lobby with a window peeking into the one of the paired TV production control rooms. There are two TV studios here as well, used for everything from pledge drives to the Indiana Week in Review show that's taped here for statewide airing. (They're also rented out for commercial use as well.)

Upstairs on the second floor, there's plenty of office space and a community room - and a magnificent new digital master control room where WFYI manages its four channels of DTV. The master control area adjoins spacious rack rooms at the rear of the facility; in front, there are several studios for WFYI-FM (90.1), including two mirror-image on-air/production rooms and a performance studio that was still being completed when we visited.

WFYI's acquisition of its new headquarters building, aided by a $20.2 million capital campaign, actually yielded more space (94,000 square feet in all) then the stations needed - which is why the top two floors of the office building are rented out to income-generating tenants. All that space came with a big parking garage in back, connected by a bridge over an alley that leads into the building. And up at the top of that bridge is a little room where most of WFYI's studio RF needs are handled. The TV and radio studio-transmitter links live up here, as do the stations' satellite receivers, connected to the dish farm that also sits out back by the parking garage.

And those studio-transmitter links point northwest, aimed at the tower farm just inside the I-465 beltway that's home to most of the city's TV and FM stations.

WFYI turns out to have been the beneficiary of the generosity of several Indianapolis commercial stations: in addition to inheriting its former studio building from channel 13, its transmitter site is shared with channel 6. The FCC's records suggest that the WRTV tower at N. 79th Street and Township Line Road dates to 1954, and the building here certainly looks to be of about that vintage as well. And lucky us - WRTV's engineer is just leaving as we arrive, giving us the chance for a very quick peek inside channel 6's side of the facility.

Those 1950s-style lights hanging from the ceiling suggest that this room once housed a much bigger analog transmitter, but by the time we get here just after the DTV transition, the room is home to just two smaller transmitters: the analog channel 6 Larcan on the left had been switched off for good in June, while a UHF Larcan across the room handled the WRTV-DT channel 25 signal.

When we visited, WRTV's transmitter room also hosted another radio station. The University of Indianapolis' WICR (88.7), the city's classical station, had to be co-located with channel 6 in the analog days to prevent interference between the closely-spaced signals; once channel 6 analog was history, WICR was free to move to a different tower in the farm, and it has since done so.

As for WFYI, its original space is tucked neatly behind the channel 6 building, and it must have been pretty tightly packed here in the analog days. The analog equipment was mostly gone by the time we arrived, just a few months after the transition - but we did get to see the original 1970s-era satellite uplink transmitters, at least.

A newer addition next to the old analog room houses the current transmitters, both Harris: WFYI-DT on channel 21 and WFYI-FM on 90.1.

There's one more stop on our Indianapolis agenda before we head north: 8120 Knue Road, nestled amidst the office parks of suburban Castleton near the junction of I-69 and I-465. This humble office building has a long broadcast history: it was the home for many years of WFMS (95.5), Indianapolis' big country station, before that station (and eventually two of its sisters) moved to new digs along I-465 on Shadeland Road on the city's northeast side. Later on, it found a radio use once again when broadcast entrepreneur Russ Oasis moved his Indianapolis-market oldies station, WKLU (101.9 Brownsburg) into renovated digs on the second floor.

And what renovated digs they were! From a wood-beamed lobby to cushy leather chairs in the boardroom and hallway, all the way back to two very spacious studios outfitted with top-of-the-line digital consoles (the second studio doubled as a remote morning-show studio for Oasis' WJFX 107.9 up in Fort Wayne), these were palatial facilities...and we say that in the past tense because it wasn't very long after our visit that Oasis sold WKLU and this building to California's EMF Broadcasting.

Today, 8120 Knue Road is the eastern hub of EMF's K-Love and Air 1 networks (WKLU is a K-Love station now) and these studios are now home to both networks' national morning shows, while much of the rest of the building is being used as EMF office space.

Thanks to WFYI chief engineer Nate Pass and RF engineer Michael Goode for the tours!

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